How I ate healthfully in restaurants fir a week - and enjoyed it
My profession—and my life—are about food. I cook, I cater. I talk about food, read about it, think about it, and, um, eat it. I buy it in upscale markets or enjoy it in restaurants—both formal, white-tablecloth ones and the kind where you eat standing up when you’re on the run, like taquerias and burger joints.
I love my work and am relatively smitten with my lifestyle, and I have no intention of changing either. But my body has started to protest. After 30-plus years working and living in the food world, my cholesterol is up, my blood pressure is up, and well, it’s no surprise, so is my weight.
So what’s a food-obsessed girl to do? I decided to consult with a dietitian. Dietitians are as food-obsessed as we foodies are, but they see food as fuel. They see food as a way to support the body’s nutritive needs. Let’s just say they’re the adults of the food world. I belong with the petulant teenagers.
Needing an adult’s advice, I asked Karen Maggio to help me. Maggio is a registered dietitian who teaches nutrition and food technology at Diablo Valley College and Mills College, and advises clients about healthy eating. Maggio has known me, and my obsession, for years. I knew she would provide me with real, usable information, not tell me to eat cottage cheese and RyKrisps and have a nice day.
So here’s the challenge I presented to her: Can I eat three meals a day out in restaurants for seven days in a row and still lose weight? Not significant weight; one pound would be just dandy. I’m in no rush.
First, Maggio and I chose a variety of local restaurants. We then got copies of their menus to consider what to choose for each meal. Maggio gave me some guidelines to help with my choices.
Guess what? Smaller is better than bigger. Anything we eat that our body doesn’t burn up in four to six hours becomes fat. Period. It doesn’t matter whether it started out as a protein, fat, or carbohydrate; our body reads it as excess, and excess we store as fat. Portions should be no bigger than a deck of cards (that is, unless you’re talking about lettuce with nothing on it, and I definitely am not!). Grilled, roasted, or broiled is better than fried. Steamed is better than buttered.
Maggio says to view the things you absolutely love as beautiful, perfect jewels that you savor in small quantities. If you have a dish that comes with fries, ask the waiter to bring only half of them, or ask him to bring you an extra plate and remove the fries to the extra plate, keeping only five or so on your dinner plate. If you love the fresh house-baked bread, then place half a piece and about a teaspoon of butter on your plate and slowly enjoy it during the course of your meal.
Half the food on your plate should be from plants—more vegetable than fruit because of the sugars in fruit. One quarter should be protein (again in a portion no bigger than a deck of cards), and the remaining quarter high-quality carbs, such as whole grains. Maggio says that carbs are the primary energy source for our bodies but that we have a tendency to overconsume them.
If you just have to try one of the more extravagant dishes on the menu, you need to either share it or divide it into two and take half of it home. The same applies for dessert. I will never be content to order berries and sorbet for dessert. Neh-ver. I want something with cream, butter, and/or chocolate. So if I know that the restaurant I’m dining in has a particularly good pastry chef, I need to keep my main course very light (grilled fish and vegetables, a cup of soup, a small salad, or a light appetizer). And it’s best to share the dessert.
If you have an impulsive nature and want to try dishes that really show off the kitchen, and if those dishes are on the indulgent side, then you have to make a deal with yourself to eat only half. You can have your cake and eat it too only if you promise to share!
Maggio informs me that the more a person loves food, the greater his or her need to exercise, and the sad truth is that for me to eat the way I want, I would probably need to strap on Nikes and run from restaurant to restaurant. But Maggio will settle for a brisk walk of 30 to 60 minutes a day. She reminds me that the benefits of exercise go beyond my desire to burn up crème brûlée. It strengthens bones and internal organs, such as the heart and lungs, improves sleep, and builds muscles that burn more energy (one happy dividend of having muscles is that they increase your metabolism). Maggio points out that a fit body works more efficiently in every way. Which gets us back to that crème brûlée: Fire up the torch, and start caramelizing!
Maggio also suggests that I keep snacks with me, because when we get too hungry, our bodies think we’re entering a famine. In order to keep us alive longer, our bodies start to shut down, slowing metabolism so that we need fewer calories to function. Our biology is unaware that the supposed famine started because we’re so busy we haven’t been able to drink a glass of water, let alone eat a cracker. Maggio suggests keeping the following snacks around: small amounts of dried fruits and nuts (by small we’re talking about an ounce of nuts—say 15 almonds—and a piece or two of dried fruit), fresh fruit, vegetable sticks, yogurt, and small servings of cheese (again, about an ounce, or two cubes about the size of dice).
Maggio suggests eating dinner earlier rather than later and eating fewer calories for dinner than for lunch. She also strongly urges a walk after dinner to encourage my metabolism to wake up and do a bit of work before I go to bed. A cup of soup (not cream based) or an appetizer that’s vegetable based is a good starter. Either send the bread basket back or position it next to your thinnest friend. Have one glass of beer or one glass of wine or one cocktail. … What’s the operative word here? Yes, you got it: one. It may be the loneliest number, but it’s also the only number you can apply to the caloric beverage you have with your meal. Even so, eater beware if you’re drinking beer or wine, especially if you begin to drink before your food arrives. The liquor will rush through your veins, and lessen your ability to know when you’re satisfied or remember why it is you care that you’re getting fat.
One last tip to help balance your food throughout the day is to look up the restaurant’s menu online before you go there to eat and make your dining decisions before you even step through the door.
Armed with this basic information and having promised to drink six eight-ounce glasses of water a day, I hit the streets.
i’m goin’ in
Rick and Ann’s is an East Bay favorite and one of my most-loved places to have breakfast. I adore its pancakes, and today I order a short stack of orange–rice flour pancakes with blueberries and coffee. The pancakes are very light and don’t weigh me down yet leave me feeling satisfied.
Rick and Ann’s, 2922 Domingo Ave., Berkeley, (510) 649-8538,
I’m in a hurry today, so I stop at Grégoire to grab something. The portions are not overly large, and the food is freshly prepared and delicious. I’m particularly fond of the grilled chicken breast sandwich with celery root and truffle in grilled lavash, which comes with a often-changing small salad. I grab a bottle of brewed iced tea that has just a little sugar in it and take lunch back to my desk.
Del Navio, 2820 Mountain Blvd., Oakland, (510) 482-2500,
Tonight I’m staying in Oakland and having dinner in a new little place called Del Navio in Woodminster. It took over Caesar’s, which was a neighborhood institution for years. It’s family owned, and the menu is a mix of Italian (mostly), Spanish (just a touch), and some things that are really California fusion. It has a full bar and a guitarist Thursday through Sunday … and a killer chocolate cake every day of the week. I choose a glass of sangria, which is fruity and sparkly, and have the seared tuna wrapped in prosciutto salad with arugula. It’s a light supper, but I’ve planned it that way because the cake is calling. Fortunately, my dining companions are happy to share dessert, so we all split a piece of the cake. In the end, I figure I had about three forkfuls of cake with dabs of cream—and I ate exactly what I wanted!
I start my day at Blackberry Bistro in Oakland, which is on my morning walking route. I enjoy a bowl of honey almond granola with organic yogurt and fresh fruit and a good strong cup of coffee. The granola is mildly sweet and crunchy, the yogurt thick and creamy, and the fruit sweet and juicy. I can eat only about half the bowl before I’m full.
Bo’s Barbecue, 3422 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 283-7133
OK, here’s a shocker: My lunch is at Bo’s Barbecue in Lafayette. Slabs of ribs and mounds of potato salad washed down with a bucket of beer. … This is a place to diet? Sure, I can be healthy here, too. I order the barbecued chicken (white meat, please, and I don’t eat the skin) and a side of coleslaw (cabbage is good for us). What to drink? Hmm, the beers look good, but I think I’ll focus on the great weather on the patio and have iced tea.
Down the road from Bo’s is Pizza Antica, where I stop for dinner. I watch lovely, thin pizzas being served in the dining room, and it’s hard to resist, but I’m dining alone tonight and won’t be able to share one. Instead I order a field greens salad and the Prince Edward Island mussels with saffron and fresh bay. And yes, I use bread to sop up the juice from the mussels, but just one slice. My dinner is delicious.Pizza Antica, 3600 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 299-0500,
Millie’s Kitchen, 1018 Oak Hill Rd., Lafayette, (925) 283-2397
Millie’s Kitchen in Lafayette is known for its great breakfasts and luscious coffee cake. Since there are three dining, we order one piece of coffee cake for the table. In addition to that, I order an egg, a piece of whole grain toast (with a dab of jam), a small orange juice, and a cup of coffee. I make sure to eat my breakfast before diving into the coffee cake, which is a tad nerve-racking because my breakfast companions are not showing any restraint at all! My egg, toast, and juice are all good, and that last bite of coffee cake makes the meal complete.
No time to stop today, so I’m at Whole Foods in Walnut Creek lost in the maze of its deli. I decide to go for the salad bar, making sure to lay a good base of greens and vegetables, which is easy here because there are so many choices. I top that with a couple of chunks of cooked salmon and fill a small container with balsamic vinaigrette. I buy one chocolate truffle for dessert. The salad is fresh, and the salmon makes it satisfying. The truffle, well, how can that be bad?
I’m saving all my dining “bang for the buck” for Bridges in Danville tonight. It’s sucha lovely place to eat, and I love to order a couple of the appetizers for my dinner. Because I’m all about the appetizers anyway, tonight I order the chef’s sampler. It includes edamame, scallop fritters, ahi poke, and grilled Kobe beef. The dish is designed to be shared, and I do send bits of it to my dining companions. I’m not having a cocktail or dessert; I’m enjoying the variety of tastes and the peaceful surroundings.
Cafe Meyers, 3468 Camino Tassajara, Danville, (925) 736-7772,
What about a Belgian waffle from Cafe Meyers in Danville: crisp, hot, steaming, piled with fruit and whipped cream? Yeah, sort of. How about a waffle and fruit sans the mound of whipped cream? Not quite the classic presentation but still good. I like the combination of the warm waffle and the sweetness of the fruit; I even drizzle a bit of maple syrup over it all. I’m full after eating about two-thirds of the waffle and leave feeling satisfied.
Chow,53 Lafayette Cir., Lafayette, (925) 962-2469
Lunch finds me elbow to elbow in the crowded, noisy dining room at Chow in Lafayette. I’ve been eating at Chow restaurants since they opened in San Francisco. I love their great homey Italian-ish food and that they offer different portion sizes of their salads and some entrées. The sandwich of the day today is grilled fish in a roll piled with coleslaw. It’s very tasty and quite filling. I eat only half of the sandwich with the bread; the second half I enjoy “naked.”
I’m feeling like I need to really cut back tonight because I’ve eaten a waffle for breakfast and most of my sandwich at Chow, so I think it’s best to have sushi for dinner. I go to Kaiwa Sushi in Walnut Creek. I order six pieces of sushi, along with a little bowl of rice and a cup of miso soup. I’m feeling virtuous.
Montclair Egg Shop, 6126 Medau Pl., Oakland, (510) 339-9554
Talk about your institutions. I’m at the Egg Shop in Oakland’s Montclair district. I used to work here years ago, when it was brand-new and part of a chain of restaurants called the Egg Shop and Apple Press. The interior is mostly unchanged, but the menu is different. There is a lot more variety now. I order a pesto omelet and ask for a side of fruit instead of potatoes. Again, I eat only about half my omelet. (Because restaurants beat the eggs in large quantities and then pour them into the pan, you can’t be sure of how many eggs you’re really getting.) I have half a piece of toast with the good house-made jam, eat the fruit thinking about how making the fruit salad was one of my jobs all those years ago, and linger over my memories with a good strong cup of Peet’s coffee.
E.J. Phair Brewing Company and Alehouse, 2151 Salvio St., Ste. L, Concord, (925) 691-4253,
One could argue the wisdom of going to a brewpub while trying to lose weight, but if I had wisdom, I wouldn’t need a nutritionist. So into E. J. Phair Brewing Company in Concord I go. What can I find in a place that’s known for large portions of hearty, robust food? Actually, it offers a couple of delicious yet healthy-sounding choices. I decide on the all-veggie sandwich, which comes with tomatoes, cucumber, avocado, sprouts, aioli, and red pepper relish. I request coleslaw instead of fries. I get my dining companion to share a bottle of pale ale, which really complements my sandwich.
Va de Vi, 1511 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek, (925) 979-0100,
Ah, Friday dinner, end of the week, time to celebrate. I’m going to Va de Vi in Walnut Creek, a great place to have a good glass of wine, sample some dishes, and people-watch. We order the Thai chicken–green papaya salad, followed by a plate of the Blommsdale savoy spinach, the seared day boat scallops with Meyer lemon butter and arugula, and the organic grass-fed hanger steak. My dining companion is a wine buff, and I ask her to order a glass of red wine for me. She recommends a three-ounce pour of 2004 Dierberg Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir. The chicken salad is refreshing and tangy; the spinach is delicious, with a touch of garlic; the scallops are lemony and sweet; and the steak is rare and juicy. Little sips of wine throughout the dinner bring it all together.
The Duck Club, at the Lafayette Park Hotel, 3287 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 283-7108, http://www.lafayetteparkhotel.com
At The Duck Club in Lafayette, my “fat tooth” would love to order the almond-crusted brioche French toast with honey mascarpone and fresh berries, but instead I get the asparagus, mushroom, and Dungeness crab frittata. Because it’s the weekend, sure, bring me the potatoes, but I immediately move half onto the extra plate I’ve requested. I have a mimosa and coffee, and take my time.
Left Bank, 60 Crescent Dr., Pleasant Hill, (925) 288-1222,
By the time I get to dinner, I’m hungry! This is a potentially dangerous situation, and being at the Left Bank in Pleasant Hill, where I know I can have a cheesy bowl of French onion soup, a rare steak with pommes frites, and chocolate molten cake, is really asking for it. I’ve done so well this week and I don’t want it all to dissolve, so I order the baby spinach salad and the chicken grand-mère with brussels sprouts. The chicken is comfort food, golden and delicious-smelling, and is a dish that is supposed to feed two—it’s a whole small chicken. I eat the breast and save the rest to take home. Because there are four of us, we order the chocolate molten cake and pass it around for all to share.
The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards, 5050 Arroyo Rd., Livermore, (925) 456-2450,
Sunday brunch on the deck at Wente Vineyards in Livermore is just about perfect. I would love to start my meal with a Bloody Mary, share a cinnamon roll with the table, and follow that with eggs Benedict on focaccia, but unless I’m willing to run back home from Livermore to Oakland, I have to adjust. Instead, I have house-made granola with berries and yogurt, followed by the Wente Gardens butternut squash soup with corriander crème fraîche. The soup is incredibly delicious, very fresh and light. I can still have the Bloody Mary. … The tomato juice counts as a vegetable. Well, doesn’t it? For dessert we do all nibble on a cinnamon roll. The environment is lovely and the food delicious. What’s not to like?
César, 4039 Piedmont Ave., Oakland; 1515 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 883-0222,
What to have, where to go? I’ve made it to the end of my week of “dining dangerously”! I decide to top it all off at César on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. There is plenty to choose from here: It’s a tapas, shared-plate kind of place, and it’s all good! I start with the brussels sprouts, and these are very likable, nicely caramelized and loaded with flavor. Then I have the ensalata mixta, which has tuna confit, salt cod, and almond-hazelnut vinaigrette. The desserts here are fabulous, and I choose the healthiest option: yogurt and honey with grilled apples, huckleberries, and almonds.
Well, guess what? When all was said and done, I lost a pound.
Is this something I can live with? Sure! There’s plenty of variety, and I don’t feel deprived. It’s all about portions, exercise, and balancing calories over the course of the day. There are some basic rules, and a little bit of planning ahead helps. But over time my choices will become automatic.
Does this mean that I’m becoming an “adult eater”? Nah!
Simple Ways to Eat Smart
You won’t have to count calories if you follow these easy guidelines provided by dietitian Karen Maggio.
Focus on what you can eat, not what you can’t.
Eat for good nutrition first. You will end up eating less of the things that don’t have a lot of food value.
Go green. Have a green vegetable and a salad every day.
Think Technicolor. Choose foods that are vivid in color: deep red beets, red cabbage, bright orange squash and sweet potatoes, red peppers. Not only does a variety of colors and textures make your food more interesting, it’s Mother Nature’s way of balancing nutrients.
Bone up. Eat a calcium-rich variety of foods, such as yogurt, lowfat milk, cheese, tofu, whole grains, legumes, and dark leafy greens.
Watch your protein. Your body needs complete proteins everyday, but not necessarily at every meal, so it’s easy to overdo. Eat only four to nine ounces (the size of two decks of cards) of lean meats or complementary plant proteins a day, such as cooked beans, peas, or fish.
K.I.S.S. You ready? Keep it simple, stupid! This is to remind us to choose foods prepared from fresh whole ingredients, without excess fats, salt, and preservatives.